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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesCrooked Trails And Straight - Part 1. Curly - Chapter 3. At The End Of The Road
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Crooked Trails And Straight - Part 1. Curly - Chapter 3. At The End Of The Road Post by :groucho Category :Long Stories Author :William Macleod Raine Date :May 2012 Read :2328

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Crooked Trails And Straight - Part 1. Curly - Chapter 3. At The End Of The Road

PART I. CURLY
CHAPTER III. AT THE END OF THE ROAD

Curly's wooden face told nothing of what he was thinking. The first article of the creed of the frontier is to be game. Good or bad, the last test of a man is the way he takes his medicine. So now young Flandrau ate his dinner with a hearty appetite, smoked cigarettes impassively, and occasionally chatted with his guards casually and as a matter of course. Deep within him was a terrible feeling of sickness at the disaster that had overwhelmed him, but he did not intend to play the quitter.

Dutch and an old fellow named Sweeney relieved the other watchers about noon. The squat puncher came up and looked down angrily at the boy lying on the bunk.

"I'll serve notice right now that if you make any breaks I'll fill your carcass full of lead," he growled.

The prisoner knew that he was nursing a grudge for the blow that had floored him. Not to be bluffed, Curly came back with a jeer. "Much obliged, my sawed-off and hammered-down friend. But what's the matter with your face? It looks some lopsided. Did a mule kick you?"

Sweeney gave his companion the laugh. "Better let him alone, Dutch. If he lands on you again like he did before your beauty ce'tainly will be spoiled complete."

The little puncher's eyes snapped rage. "You'll get yours pretty soon, Mr. Curly Flandrau. The boys are fixin' to hang yore hide up to dry."

"Does look that way, doesn't it?" the boy agreed quietly.

As the day began to wear out it looked so more than ever. Two riders from the Bar Double M reached the ranch and were brought in to identify him as the horse thief. The two were Maloney and Kite Bonfils, neither of them friends of the young rustler. The foreman in particular was a wet blanket to his chances. The man's black eyes were the sort that never soften toward the follies and mistakes of youth.

"You've got the right man all right," he said to Buck without answering Flandrau's cool nod of recognition.

"What sort of a reputation has he got?" Buck asked, lowering his voice a little.

Kite did not take the trouble to lower his. "Bad. Always been a tough character. Friend of Bad Bill Cranston and Soapy Stone."

Dutch chipped in. "Shot up the Silver Dollar saloon onct. Pretty near beat Pete Schiff's head off another time."

Curly laughed rather wildly. "That's right. Keep a-coming, boys. Your turn now, Maloney."

"All right. Might as well have it all," Buck agreed.

"I don't know anything against the kid, barring that he's been a little wild," Maloney testified. "And I reckon we ain't any of us prize Sunday school winners for that matter."

"Are we all friends of Soapy Stone and Bad Bill? Do we all rustle stock and shoot up good citizens?" Dutch shrilled.

Maloney's blue Irish eyes rested on the little puncher for a moment, then passed on as if he had been weighed and found wanting.

"I've noticed," he said to nobody in particular, "that them hollering loudest for justice are most generally the ones that would hate to have it done to them."

Dutch bristled like a turkey rooster. "What do you mean by that?"

The Irishman smiled derisively. "I reckon you can guess if you try real hard."

Dutch fumed, but did no guessing out loud. His reputation was a whitewashed one. Queer stories had been whispered about him. He had been a nester, and it was claimed that calves certainly not his had been found carrying his brand. The man had been full of explanations, but there came a time when explanations no longer were accepted. He was invited to become an absentee at his earliest convenience. This was when he had been living across the mountains. Curly had been one of those who had given the invitation. He had taken the hint and left without delay. Now he was paying the debt he owed young Flandrau.

Though the role Curly had been given was that of the hardened desperado he could not quite live up to the part. As Buck turned to leave the bunk house the boy touched him on the arm.

"How about Cullison?" he asked, very low.

But Buck would not have it that way. "What about him?" he demanded out load, his voice grating like steel when it grinds.

"Is he--how is he doing?"

"What's eatin' you? Ain't he dying fast enough to suit you?"

Flandrau shrank from the cruel words, as a schoolboy does from his teacher when he jumps at him with a cane. He understood how the men were feeling, but to have it put into words like this cut him deeply.

It was then that Maloney made a friend of the young man for life. He let a hand drop carelessly on Curly's shoulder and looked at him with a friendly smile in his eyes, just as if he knew that this was no wolf but a poor lost dog up against it hard.

"Doc thinks he'll make it all right."

But there were times when Curly wondered whether it would make any difference to him whether Cullison got well or not. Something immediate was in the air. Public opinion was sifting down to a decision. There were wise nods, and whisperings, and men riding up and going off again in a hurry. There had been a good deal of lawlessness of late, for which Soapy Stone's band of followers was held responsible. Just as plainly as if he had heard the arguments of Dutch and Kite Bonfils he knew that they were urging the others to make an example of him. Most of these men were well up to the average for the milk of human kindness. They were the squarest citizens in Arizona. But Flandrau knew they would snuff out his life just the same if they decided it was best. Afterward they might regret it, but that would not help him.

Darkness came, and the lamps were lit. Again Curly ate and smoked and chatted a little with his captors. But as he sat there hour after hour, feeling death creep closer every minute, cold shivers ran up and down his spine.

They began to question him, at first casually and carelessly, so it seemed to Curly. But presently he discerned a drift in the talk. They were trying to find out who had been his partners in the rustling.

"And I reckon Soapy and Bad Bill left you lads at Saguache to hold the sack," Buck suggested sympathetically.

Curly grew wary. He did not intend to betray his accomplices. "Wrong guess. Soapy and Bad Bill weren't in this deal," he answered easily.

"We know there were two others in it with you. I guess they were Soapy and Bad Bill all right."

"There's no law against guessing."

The foreman of the Bar Double M interrupted impatiently, tired of trying to pump out the information by finesse. "You've got to speak, Flandrau. You've got to tell us who was engineering this theft. Understand?"

The young rustler looked at the grim frowning face and his heart sank. "Got to tell you, have I?"

"That's what?"

"Out with it," ordered Buck.

"Oh, I expect I'll keep that under my hat," Curly told them lightly.

They were crowded about him in a half circle, nearly a score of hard leather-faced plainsmen. Some of them were riders of the Circle C outfit. Others had ridden over from neighboring ranches. All of them plainly meant business. They meant to stamp out rustling, and their determination had been given an edge by the wounding of Luck Cullison, the most popular man in the county.

"Think again, Curly," advised Sweeney quietly. "The boys ain't trifling about this thing. They mean to find out who was in the rustling of the Bar Double M stock."

"Not through me, they won't."

"Through you. And right now."

A dozen times during the evening Curly had crushed down the desire to beg for mercy, to cry out desperately for them to let him off. He had kept telling himself not to show yellow, that it would not last long. Now the fear of breaking down sloughed from his soul. He rose from the bed and looked round at the brown faces circled about him in the shine of the lamps.

"I'll not tell you a thing--not a thing."

He stood there chalk-faced, his lips so dry that he had to keep moistening them with the tip of his tongue. Two thoughts hammered in his head. One was that he had come to the end of his trail, the other that he would game it out without weakening.

Dutch had a new rope in his hand with a loop at one end. He tossed it over the boy's head and drew it taut. Two or three of the faces in the circle were almost as bloodless as that of the prisoner, but they were set to see the thing out.

"Will you tell now?" Bonfils asked.

Curly met him eye to eye. "No."

"Come along then."

One of the men caught his arm at the place where he had been wounded. The rustler flinched.

"Careful, Buck. Don't you see you're hurting his bad arm?" Sweeney said sharply.

"Sure. Take him right under the shoulder."

"There's no call to be rough with him."

"I didn't aim to hurt him," Buck defended himself.

His grip was loose and easy now. Like the others he was making it up to his conscience for what he meant to do by doing it in the kindest way possible.

Curly's senses had never been more alert. He noticed that Buck had on a red necktie that had got loose from his shirt and climbed up his neck. It had black polka dots and was badly frayed. Sweeney was chewing tobacco. He would have that chew in his mouth after they had finished what they were going to do.

"Ain't he the gamest ever?" someone whispered.

The rustler heard the words and they braced him as a drink of whiskey does a man who has been on a bad spree. His heart was chill with fear, but he had strung his will not to let him give way.

"Better do it at the cottonwoods down by the creek," Buck told Bonfils in a low voice.

The foreman of the Bar Double M moved his head in assent. "All right. Let's get it over quick as we can."

A sound of flying feet came from outside. Someone smothered an oath of surprise. Kate Cullison stood in the doorway, all out of breath and panting.

She took the situation in before she spoke, guessed exactly what they intended to do. Yet she flung her imperious question at them.

"What is it?"

They had not a word to say for themselves. In that room were some of the most callous hearts in the territory. Not one man in a million could have phased them, but this slender girl dumfounded them. Her gaze settled on Buck. His wandered for help to Sweeney, to Jake, to Kite Bonfils.

"Now look-a-here, Miss Kate," Sweeney began to explain.

But she swept his remonstrance aside.

"No--No--No!" Her voice gathered strength with each repetition of the word. "I won't have it. What are you thinking about?"

To the boy with the rope around his neck she was an angel from heaven as she stood there so slim and straight, her dark eyes shining like stars. Some of these men were old enough to be her father. Any of them could have crushed her with one hand. But if a thunderbolt had crashed in their midst it could not have disturbed the vigilantes more.

"He's a rustler, Miss Kate; belongs to Soapy Stone's outfit," Sweeney answered the girl.

"Can you prove it?"

"We got him double cinched."

"Then let the law put him in prison."

"He shot yore paw," Buck reminded her.

"Is that why you're doing it?"

"Yes'm," and "That's why," they nodded.

Like a flash she took advantage of their admission. "Then I've got more against him than you have, and I say turn him over to the law."

"He'd get a good lawyer and wiggle out," Dutch objected.

She whirled on the little puncher. "You know how that is, do you?"

Somebody laughed. It was known that Dutch had once been tried for stealing a sheep and had been acquitted.

Kite pushed forward, rough and overbearing. "Now see here. We know what we're doing and we know why we're doing it. This ain't any business for a girl to mix in. You go back to the house and nurse your father that this man shot."

"So it isn't the kind of business for a girl," she answered scornfully. "It's work for a man, isn't it? No, not for one. For nine--eleven--thirteen--seventeen big brave strong men to hang one poor wounded boy."

Again that amused laugh rippled out. It came from Maloney. He was leaning against the door jamb with his hands in his pockets. Nobody had noticed him before. He had come in after the girl. When Curly came to think it over later, if he had been given three guesses as to who had told Kate Cullison what was on the program he would have guessed Maloney each time.

"Now that you've relieved your mind proper, Miss Cullison, I expect any of the boys will be glad to escort you back to the house," Kite suggested with an acid smile.

"What have you got to do with this?" she flamed. "Our boys took him. They brought him here as their prisoner. Do you think we'll let you come over into this county and dictate everything we do?"

"I've got a notion tucked away that you're trying to do the dictating your own self," the Bar Double M man contradicted.

"I'm not. But I won't stand by while you get these boys to do murder. If they haven't sense enough to keep them from it I've got to stop it myself."

Kite laughed sarcastically. "You hear your boss, boys."

"You've had yore say now, Miss Kate. I reckon you better say good-night," advised Buck.

She handed Buck and his friends her compliments in a swift flow of feminine ferocity.

Maloney pushed into the circle. "She's dead right, boys. There's nothing to this lynching game. He's only a kid."

"He's not such a kid but what he can do murder," Dutch spat out.

Kate read him the riot act so sharply that the little puncher had not another word to say. The tide of opinion was shifting. Those who had been worked up to the lynching by the arguments of Bonfils began to resent his activity. Flandrau was their prisoner, wasn't he? No use going off half cocked. Some of them were discovering that they were not half so anxious to hang him as they had supposed.

The girl turned to her friends and neighbors. "I oughtn't to have talked to you that way, but you know how worried I am about Dad," she apologized with a catch in her breath. "I'm sure you didn't think or you would never have done anything to trouble me more just now. You know I didn't half mean it." She looked from one to another, her eyes shiny with tears. "I know that no braver or kinder men live than you. Why, you're my folks. I've been brought up among you. And so you've got to forgive me."

Some said "Sure," others told her to forget it, and one grass widower drew a laugh by saying that her little spiel reminded him of happier days.

For the first time a smile lit her face. The boy for whose life she was pleading thought it was like sunshine after a storm.

"I'm so glad you've changed your minds. I knew you would when you thought it over," she told them chattily and confidentially.

She was taking their assent for granted. Now she waited and gave them a chance to chorus their agreement. None of them spoke except Maloney. Most of them were with her in sympathy but none wanted to be first in giving way. Each wanted to save his face, so that the others could not later blame him for quitting first.

She looked around from one to another, still cheerful and sure of her ground apparently. Two steps brought her directly in front of one. She caught him by the lapels of his coat and looked straight into his eyes. "You _have changed your mind, haven't you, Jake?"

The big Missourian twisted his hat in embarrassment. "I reckon I have, Miss Kate. Whatever the other boys say," he got out at last.

"Haven't you a mind of your own, Jake?"

"Sure. Whatever's right suits me."

"Well, you know what is right, don't you?"

"I expect."

"Then you won't hurt this man, our prisoner?"

"I haven't a thing against him if you haven't."

"Then you won't hurt him? You won't stand by and let the other boys do it?"

"Now, Miss Kate--"

She burst into sudden tears. "I thought you were my friend, but now I'm in trouble you--you think only of making it worse. I'm worried to death about Dad--and you--you make me stay here--away from him--and torment me."

Jake gave in immediately and the rest followed like a flock of sheep. Two or three of the promises came hard, but she did not stop till each one individually had pledged himself. And all the time she was cajoling them, explaining how good it was of them to think of avenging her father, how in one way she did not blame them at all, though of course they had seen it would not do as soon as they gave the matter a second thought. Dad would be so pleased at them when he heard about it, and she wanted them to know how much she liked and admired them. It was quite a love feast.

The young man she had saved could not keep his eyes from her. He would have liked to kneel down and kiss the edge of her dress and put his curly head in the dust before her. The ice in his heart had melted in the warmth of a great emotion. She was standing close to him talking to Buck when he spoke in a low voice.

"I reckon I can't tell you--how much I'm obliged to you, Miss."

She drew back quickly as if he had been a snake about to strike, her hand instinctively gathering her skirts so that they would not brush against him.

"I don't want your thanks," she told him, and her voice was like the drench of an icy wave.

But when she saw the hurt in his eyes she hesitated. Perhaps she guessed that he was human after all, for an impulse carried her forward to take the rope from his neck. While his heart beat twice her soft fingers touched his throat and grazed his cheek. Then she turned and was gone from the room.

It was a long time before the bunk house quieted. Curly, faint with weariness, lay down and tried to sleep. His arm was paining a good deal and he felt feverish. The men of the Circle C and their guests sat down and argued the whole thing over. But after a time the doctor came in and had the patient carried to the house. He was put in a good clean bed and his arm dressed again.

The doctor brought him good news. "Cullison is doing fine. He has dropped into a good sleep. He'd ought to make it all right."

Curly thought about the girl who had fought for his life.

"You'll not let him die, Doc," he begged.

"He's too tough for that, Luck Cullison is."

Presently Doctor Brown gave him a sleeping powder and left him. Soon after that Curly fell asleep and dreamed about a slim dark girl with fine longlashed eyes that could be both tender and ferocious.

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